Languages with Similar Phonemic Inventories

I have recently wondered about whether there could exist two distinct languages that would sound exactly the same to a foreigner. You sometimes see people confusing French with Spanish, or vice versa, even though they sound nothing alike to speakers of either languages. Same thing goes for the numerous languages in China, more often than not conflated as the equivocal “Chinese”. Although I suspect this lack of distinction has more complex political and social underpinnings. Despite the obvious reason that confusions like these arise because of uneducated guesses and untrained ears, there are also some undeniable factual similarities, but are there two languages with the same exact phonemes? French and Spanish only have a few in common, and the closer you look, the more they differ. I know that the idea of two languages sounding exactly the same to foreigners is more complicated than this; it goes beyond the realm of phonemic inventories, and compel us to delve into codas, onsets, nucleus and even social variables. Thus, I will stick to phonemic inventories for now and I will try to find which languages have the most similar ones.

Romansch and Serbo-Croatian

A unlikely match, but it looks like the perfect contender for number 1, and it’s also exactly what I was looking for. Two languages with not much in common, expect for their surprisingly similar phonemic inventories. If you compare their consonants and vowels side by side, the similarity is pretty evident. Let’s focus on the different phonemes, since there are a couple: the most striking ones are /x/ and /ʋ/, two completely non-existent phonemes in Romansch, that, you guessed it, appear in Serbo-Croatian. Similarly, Romansch features the semivowel /w/, a phoneme which apparently doesn’t even guest star in Serbo-Croatian loanwords. Vowel-wise, Romansch has the same ones as Serbo-Croatian, with slightly more variety, distinguishing between /e/ and /ɛ/, /o/ and /ɔ/. There’s also a schwa-like vowel. And Serbo-Croatian has a pitch accent. I know, I know: if you scratch under the surface, they are not that similar, but so far it is the closest match I could find. For a more thorough comparison, see my excel spreadsheet with all the relevant information. Keep in mind that I didn’t really account for dialectal variations, and instead focused on identical phoneme occurrences in both languages, thus weeding out as much as possible differences induced by dialects. If you want to listen to these languages being spoken by native speakers, you’re in luck: Wikitongues has recordings in Serbian and Romansch.

Spanish and Greek

A bunch of people on the internet will readily point out to the similarities between those languages. The comment section of this video by Wikitongues is an example of how much curiosity (or dispute) the comparison stirs up. I will focus on Castilian Spanish since it shares with Greek the consonant /θ/ which is substituted by a /s/ in virtually all other Spanish dialects (except Equatoguinean Spanish, which I unfortunately don’t know much about, but find fascinating nonetheless, especially for its use of the guttural R among certain speakers, like in Puerto Rico). According to the Wikipedia page on Modern Greek Phonology, there’s obviously quite a lot of differences with Spanish, but it’s worth noting that the vowels are really similar. Anyway, here’s my spreadsheet. Honestly, they’re not that similar in terms of phonemic inventories, but for whatever reason the Internet seemed intent on setting them up on a date.

Now, if you’re a speaker of either Greek or Spanish, you’re probably starting to call into question the very premise of the post. “They sound nothing alike”, you might mumble in disappointment. I know. It seemed like a fun exercise to indulge in, but it turned sour very quickly: I’ve gone through numerous other pairs of languages, some of which are regularly brought up in Internet discussions (Let me fool myself into thinking that it somehow lends more credibility to my approach, that it’s the poor man’s peer review) but it felt pointless and futile after a while. The spreadsheets are also ludicrously contrived and inconsistent: for starters, they would have benefited from the inclusion of allophones, although I’m not sure how quantifying and comparing such blurry and shifting notions accurately is feasible. My attempt at compiling this data may seem like travesty but in that case I’d rather you take it as a parody. All in all, I became desensitized to the wondrous jolt of adrenaline elicited by such serendipitous harmony (Just me? Ok fine). It suddenly felt like I was caught up in the whirl of a culturally biased storm of phonological eggcorns, and I was whisked away to the Land of Faux Pas. The thing is, I didn’t want to end the post on such an abrupt note, as if I were snapping someone’s head off (Sorry, French reflex). I tried to put it to rest anyway.
During my grieving process, I came to realize that native English speakers were often curious about what their language sounded like to foreign ears, and, oftentimes, they will channel that feeling into inquiries regarding similar-sounding languages (*Gasp* Blog post, is it thee? Whence hast thou come? I thought thee dead, mine precious). English is so ubiquitous but alien at the same time. It has Germanic roots but, because of its marriage and subsequent divorce with French, it sort of lost touch with the Teutonic clique. So what better way to end the post with a bonus round dedicated to relatives of English? No, not Frisian. I want to focus on the Anglic languages, among which there’s English, and…

Scots and Yola

Yes, there’s also Fingallian, but I can’t find any recordings, because it is extinct. Yola is also… extinct, but there’s a recording of the language being sung, albeit a rather inaccurate and lackluster one. (I’m just assuming, but, realistically, what are the odds of this guy sounding exactly like a native speaker of a dead language?). Enjoy experiencing the uncanny likeness of familiarity, the distorting ripples in your reflection, the transient and basilisk chill of ancient memories, the quiddity of reverse speech… enjoy hearing Scots and Yola.

I oversold this, didn’t I?
Here’s a bonus to make up for it: Shetlandic Scots and Doric Scots


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